The Sagacity of China’s Vaccine Diplomacy


Since the Chinese President Xi Jinping made statement that Chinese produced COVID-19 vaccine would become a “global public good”. China has been involved in to disseminate its product across the globe to elevate its soft image, goodwill, and prestige in the eyes of international community.

Health diplomacy has received limited attention as compared to economic, military, and political sphere in the past, but now the birth of perilous COVID-19 pandemic has brought health diplomacy in limelight and become essential for every state to deal withCOVID-19 pandemic. China, a new emerging great power, is playing a principal role in it. It is proactive in providing medical help to developing countries especially the use of recent vaccine diplomacy to enhance its diplomatic outrage. In fact, it appears that China has already tried to ameliorate its image through “mask diplomacy” in order to frame itself as a savior of the world. Similarly, vaccine diplomacy can potentially be an effective in this regard.

China’s vaccine diplomacy is effectively working largely for the developing countries. Chinese top officials have pledged priority access to Chinese vaccines to developing countries. The Chinese Foreign Minister has stated that China is supplying vaccine aid to sixty nine countries (including developing African countries and strategically important countries of Asia like Pakistan and Philippine) moreover, it is exporting vaccine to twenty eight countries commercially.

In contrast to the European Union and the United States, vaccine development in China is state-led procedure. Chinese government has mobilized several firms and institutions and provided financial, infrastructural, and institutional facilitation to develop the vaccine. Chinese firms and institutions have worked on different technological approaches and developed inactivated virus vaccine (Ad5-nCoV) and distributed first to the developing countries. Chinese General, Chen Wei, on this eminent success said that it is avatar of Chinese Science and Technology and representing China’s great power.

Moreover, unlike last year, China is no longer lone supplier of COVID-19 vaccine. Rather, China is competing with Russia and India. Moreover the United States has also entered into vaccine diplomacy campaign to eradicate this pandemic. Nonetheless, the COVID-19 vaccination process is yet mostly unmapped and it has number of obstacles in the form of scientific development, logistical constraints and geopolitical competition.

With the pandemic going on, China is acting like a responsible global power as it has gained its base in vaccine diplomacy and found its way in other continents i.e. Africa, Asia and South America. On the other hand, EU and US are lagging behind China and Russia in terms of vaccine diplomacy in developing regions and this will most likely, has strategic consequences in the future. China is taking the edge of “vaccine vacuum”, and is trying to fill this vacuum after perceived negligence of the West.

The race of vaccine production and distribution has become undeniable feature of the great power competition. The West has adopted “me first” approach. The United States is investing all its efforts in vaccination of its own population first before looking outwards. Trump administration abnegation gave way to China’s Vaccine diplomacy, and China filled the void that Trump administration left open. Mindful strategy reveals that China’s proactive approach during the pandemic has been different than that of the Western policy. China is targeting low and medium-income countries. China is rendering vaccine and medical support to those countries which have been ally and looked to the West in the times of need in the past. Even the member countries of the Europe Union which have confronted resurgence of the Corona virus cases have approached China for vaccines.

Beijing has supplied vaccine to Hungry (EU member state), Serbia, and Turkey (EU candidate countries).Additionally, The French president Emmanuel Macron also confessed in February that vaccine diplomacy by Beijing is “humiliation for Western countries and their political leadership.”

The belated rollout of the Western vaccine handed an important diplomatic and commercial room to Beijing to substantiate its technological and medico-science advancement, hence giving legitimacy to dominance of authoritarian model of governance over the Western democratic model. There is no doubt how the Beijing administration has adequately controlled the spread of pandemic with in the country of 1.4 billion people.

An important instrument in winning the war of narrative with reference to vaccine diplomacy, Chinese media is playing very crucial role. The media is working day and night for the promotion of China as responsible and generous super power internationally. The media is covering the every event of the vaccine shipment.

China’s vaccine diplomacy in real term ameliorate the Chinese government image in international community in general and unify its relations with countries that are member of the BRI particularly. Foreign Minister of Algeria Sabri Boukadoum, for instance, stated that his country was thankful to China for vaccine aid, and uttered his support for BRI. The Triumph of China’s vaccine diplomacy even serves the political interest of China at home while satisfying the local audience through its efficiency by controlling the virus at home and supporting the countries beyond its borders.  

Chinese leadership during the pandemic celebrated its instrumental role in eradicating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chinese President Xi Jinping directly linked the medical assistance to developing countries with “Health Silk Road”, which is a part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Chinese official announced that China would give priority to BRI countries in term of vaccine distribution. Chinese vaccine has also given space to Chinese Pharmaceutical industry and build trust at international level because of effectiveness of Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines. China may shift the notion and gain trust of international community about domestic pharmaceutical industries.

Recently, Chinese vaccine was made by Sinopharm declared safe and reliable to fight against the COVID-19 virus by global health agency. This green signal has cleared doubts about Chinese vaccine. World Health Organization (WHO) also included Chinese vaccine in COVAX, a WHO scheme, which provides the free vaccines to developing countries.China has already actively involved in the COVAX scheme with regional countries.

The Chinese Pharmaceutical firms Sinovac and Sinopharm have capacity to produce twelve million doses per day. Similarly, India is also a big vaccine producer and exporter but it has terminated the export of vaccine because of crummy COVID-19 situation at home over the last few weeks. This provides China with room to manoeuvre in terms of vaccine diplomacy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given new dimensions to international politics. China’s vaccine diplomacy is saving millions across the world, at the same time it is increasing sphere of influence and global status. Through vaccine and mask diplomacy China has utilized this opportunity to improve its soft image. Moreover, it also demonstrate its medico-technological advancement parity over the Western powers. China has filled the vaccine vacuum that Western powers left open.

China frames itself as a solution to the pandemic rather than being the reason labeled by the West.  China is taking the edge to suggest that it can rescue the world from COVID-19 pandemic and careful analysis suggest that China has been successful in this regard so far.

Rizwan Ali
Rizwan Ali
Rizwan Ali is an undergraduate student of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University, Islamabad. He has avid interest in foreign policy analysis, international politics, and contemporary conflicts in Asia and their changing dynamics.